3. REFLEXIVE METHODOLOGY
3.5 Different factors
The participatory observation method seems to be the approach that offered the most equal opportunity of ‘participation and expression’ to all children regardless of their age, gender, ethnic background, etc. The collected interviews exposed slight differences related to gender at the level of secondary school: females were generally more talkative, more open and more informative. Girls were usually more expressive and able to reflect more thoroughly on their personal lives, feelings, challenges, future aspirations, etc. Also, long-term migrant children and local children have an advantage in oral expression since they do not encounter language barriers to the same extent as their newly arrived peers. Still, significant differences related to personal traits were present.
For newly arrived migrant children, interviewing was challenging as they sometimes experienced severe trouble expressing themselves in the Slovene language and find the right words. Consequently, the fluency of their narration was affected. Although they were sometimes given the opportunity to speak in their mother tongue, they rarely decided to do so. Such interviews were poor in terms of information richness, but they enable other insights:
for example, why newly arrived migrant children do not want to speak in their mother tongue with the researcher. In one secondary school, a focus group exclusively with newly arrived females was organized and that turned out to be very positive. These girls were talkative and informative. Finally, researchers have had the feeling that the application of art-based methods may give newly arrived migrant children more possibility for expression.
The socio-economic status of children was revealed in some cases. Most children from one vocational school have low socio-economic status and difficult family backgrounds (low level of education, precarious jobs, low wages, low cultural capital, etc.). In such cases, the aspirations of children for the future are very similar to those of their parents; they aim to be manual workers at construction sites, workers in the family bakery, hairdressers, etc. Socio-economic status influences the integration process of children when fathers are the only family
24 members who are employed, work in low-paid jobs (construction sites, bakery), are absent the whole day and have a low level of language fluency. The same can be said when mothers are mostly at home, are not employed and do not socialize with the outside world; hence, their language proficiency is low. On the other hand, families with higher socio-economic status, higher parental education and higher professions seem to facilitate the integration of children:
well-off parents enable children to attend extracurricular and leisure activities where children have more opportunities to communicate with local children. In addition, some can pay for private lessons in the Slovenian language, etc.
The integration process is slowed down in the case of more closed ethnic communities/families; we observed the influence of ethnic background and ethnic boundaries. When fathers work the entire day on construction sites or in a bakery, they rarely integrate linguistically. At the same time, mothers are mostly stay-at-home mothers; they are not employed and therefore they tend to socialize exclusively ingroup. Consequently, they miss opportunities to learn Slovene. Similarly, children who belong to ethnic groups with strong group boundaries tend to socialize mostly with parents, relatives and other ingroup members and this influences the integration process. In Slovenia, this phenomenon was observed in relation to children with an Albanian ethnic background. In addition, at one secondary school, Albanian girls, with one exception, did not want to participate in interviews.
In relation to the age of children, it was easier to establish more friendly relations with younger children (10–13 y/o). For this age group, it would be more appropriate to apply an art-based approach which, unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 situation was almost completely impossible. It seems that especially for younger newly arrived migrant children an art-based approach would be the most appropriate one. Autobiographical interviews proved less useful for this age group of children as they are not able to autonomously summarize their life stories, are less structured and focused, and lack the necessary concentration. In addition, they require more guidance from the interviewer. Hence, the guidance and impact of the researcher are significant and less child-centred in comparison with an interview structured and led by children.
Finally, we have not obtained any data in relation to sexual orientation and sexual identity.
25 3.6 Newly arrived, long-term, local children
3.6.1 Newly arrived migrant children
During the field research, newly arrived migrant children were, due to language barriers, mostly quiet and reserved. Having difficulties expressing their thoughts resulted in less informative interviews that were hard to conduct. However, a significant difference in the children’s behaviour was noticed when they attended additional Slovene language courses for foreign learners (with only newly arrived migrant children involved) and regular classes where all children were included. In the language courses, newly arrived migrant children were noticeably more relaxed, talkative and curious, while in regular classes they were more quiet, careful, observing, reserved and shy. This was especially true at the beginning of the school year, while during the school year, some changes could be noticed. After six months, some of them adapted to the extent that they were unrecognizable, turning from quiet, shy, reserved children to loud, talkative, outgoing and omnipresent.
The most significant challenge when approaching newly arrived migrant children is their language barrier. However, there exists a considerable difference regarding their origin.
If their mother tongue is Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian, which are more similar to Slovenian, the language constraints were not as significant as with newly arrived children whose mother tongue is, for instance, Albanian. These children faced more pronounced problems in learning Slovene and integrating into a new society.
Some researchers noticed specific gratitude from some newly arrived migrant children in terms of recognizing the opportunity to speak up. The MiCREATE project gives children the feeling of being appreciated, heard and accepted. Interviews with these children were more emotional and ‘heavy’ to conduct because of their vivid memories of loss and change. This group requires special emotional support.
Whenever possible, researchers were willing to adapt to the newly arrived migrant children and spoken in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian or English. Consequently, a translator’s presence was never needed. Sometimes, having a translator would allow the researcher to obtain more data; however, it is possible that the presence of another adult would negatively affect the atmosphere.
26 In the case of newly arrived migrant children repetition of interviews also seems appropriate in order to give more time and space for autonomous expression.
3.6.2 Long-term migrant children
This group was usually fluent in the Slovenian language (although the accent often revealed their non-Slovene origin), ambitious, well adjusted and mostly proud of their cultural heritage.
They easily switched between cultures and languages, evaluating the pros and cons of migration, and suggesting what is already well developed in the process of integration and what could be improved in the future. In most cases, children appreciated the opportunity to speak about their country of origin, struggles, fond memories and new possibilities and opportunities. Most of them were happy to live in Slovenia. They have no desire to return to their country of origin. Many of them were committed to succeed in order to express respect for their parents’ decisions and courage in migrating. These children were relaxed, happy and open-minded. In secondary school, children did not face major expressions of discrimination.
They identified primary schools as being places of more intolerant behaviour where several of them experienced bullying and intolerant attitudes. In their words, such events are not present in secondary schools where ‘they speak more about football and girls than about ethnicity’.
All methods were easily applicable to the long-term migrant children. In particular, interviews were very informative, consisting of fluent narration about the migration experience, integration and general life in the country of origin and in the host country. The interviewees were spontaneous; they needed less guidance and required fewer specific questions. Children were approachable, interested in participating and willing to share their views, ideas and experiences.
Finally, it was interesting to observe that often these children did not refer to themselves as migrant children but perceived only newly arrived migrant children as such.
27 3.6.3 Local children
Local children were mostly approachable and interested in participating. Apart from one secondary school, where two local children explicitly declined to participate in the study, local children had no constraints in this regard. The researcher assumed that the reason for declining to participate was the topic of the research.
During the observation phase, local children were a bit louder, more confident and more active in classes. They felt comfortable in the presence of the researcher, probably because of familiarity with the general social situation and dynamics in school. In mixed focus groups, they dominated the discussion. During the discussion, this group of children sometimes behaved according to prevailing stereotypes and prejudices, gave socially desirable answers, and assessed how successful their migrant classmates are (in terms of grades, sociability, popularity, etc.). Several local children struggled to put themselves in migrant children’s shoes while others were considerably empathic. They offered interesting ideas and solutions and were aware of common barriers that migrant children encounter.
In general, local children are used to the cultural diversity in their local environment and acknowledge cultural diversity in their schools. Sometimes, local children are the minority in their class or belong to ‘second’ and ‘third’ generations of migrants.
In this report, we tried to critically reflect on (a) the methodology used during our fieldwork with children, but more importantly to evaluate (b) the success of the attempt to apply a child-centred approach in the research and (c) ethical issues with a special emphasis on children’s free consent to participate in the research.
The decision to apply a mixed-methods approach when researching the process of the integration of migrant children in the school environment and to apply a participatory observation phase and collection of auto/biographical stories as a form of interview was strongly influenced by researchers’ experiences and knowledge stemming from previous work with (migrant, unaccompanied, etc.) children. As experienced researchers in the field, we had the knowledge that only with mixed methods we can come close to what can be called ‘social
28 reality’. Our epistemological, ontological and theoretical background and assumptions thus influenced to a significant extent not only the research and methodological protocol but also the decision to apply a child-centred approach.
Although, in accordance with a child-centred perspective, we tried to listen to the voice of children and catch their reality, we are well aware, as Reinharz (1992) reveals, that there is an obvious tendency among researchers to simplify complex processes of representing children’s voices as though these voices speak on their own, rather than through the researcher who makes choices about how to collect and interpret these voices (and which transcript extracts to present as evidence).
The problem in this respect is that our subjectivity (who we are) is always interfering with the lives of others, with the lives of those we observe, analyze and interpret. As
‘representation … is always self-representation … the other’s presence is directly connected to the writer’s self-presence in the text (Denzin, 1994: 503). Our characters, subjectivity, age, gender, having our own children or not, being locals or migrant or someone with a migrant background, etc. influenced the whole process of researching.
Also, our preferences for a qualitative, fluid and more open-ended methodological approach must be reflected in accordance with the criticism directed against the tendency to romanticize children’s voices and ‘subjectivities’. We, as researchers, are bargaining between objectivity, collection of data, evidence and construction of the theory on the one hand, and, on the other, respect towards observed subjects, their voices and interpretations.
Reflexivity is needed to avoid the traps of simplified reasoning and presenting social reality as we see it as the only true and objective. Finally, the question remains: how can we, as researchers, consider and incorporate our reflexive observation into actual analysis of data?
Another issue that should be openly discussed is to what extent we were truly ethically mindful throughout the research process. As researchers, we were compromising between the need to collect needed data and, at the same time, respecting children’s will and their free choice to participate fully. To what extent was the children’s participation truly and consciously voluntary? Children were often participating in the research because they perceived us as authority figures, ‘teachers’ or as a part of school protocols. The process to
29 obtain informed consent is especially tricky. In Slovenian schools, parents sign a form that gives general consent for children to be ‘part of different anonymous surveys and photographing sessions, etc. for research or school purposes’. This general consent form covered the ‘survey part’ of our research; however, we decided to additionally include at the beginning of the online survey the information and signed consent to participate in surveying for children. Similarly, after receiving signed consent forms from some parents and children, we still again asked for consent and recorded it prior to the formal recording of interviews and focus groups. However, we cannot dismiss the feeling that this consent was sometimes
‘just a formality’ and that children were not fully aware of the true nature of research and also possible consequences in participating in the research (as, for instance, in the event of unexpected and/or illegal and, for children, dangerous activities, we are obliged to intervene and/or act in accordance with the law and the best interest of the child).
It appeared that especially vulnerable in this respect were newly arrived migrant children, less fluent in the Slovenian language and less competent in general social protocols related to participation in research.
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